‘Archosaurian Dawn’ From Sketches to Final Artwork

Robert Nicholls

‘Archosaurian Dawn’ is an evocative piece of paleoart produced by internationally renowned paleoartist Robert Nicholls. This original artwork was commissioned by the DAWNDINOS team to feature as the headline banner on this website and other publications. It depicts some of the animal subjects in our study in their natural environment in the late Triassic period (~ 225 mya) of Argentina.

All images below can be clicked to enlarge them. Bob provided a nice quote on our main page.


  .… So what is Paleoart?

Paleoart is any original artistic work that attempts to reconstruct or depict prehistoric life according to the current knowledge and scientific evidence at the moment of creating the artwork. The production process for new commissions is lengthy and detailed and can take several months to complete. The artist starts by discussing with the client the required content of the composition and how the artwork will be used. When the artwork brief has been agreed, the reconstruction process can begin.


How was ‘Archosaurian Dawn’ Produced?

Bob Nicholls has kindly shared with us the fascinating process and stages in the production of ‘Archosaurian Dawn’ including the sketches (or drafts)  that he did before he started rendering the final artwork.

When starting a new illustration, a white canvas with seemingly infinite compositional possibilities can be daunting.  So, Bob often starts the  drawing process with some quick thumbnail sketches.  This is an opportunity to get lots of ideas down on paper and experiment with a variety of arrangements and perspectives without committing too much time to one idea.  Then, from these sketches he chooses his favourite composition, or in this case a combination of two (bottom left and top right).

 X1 Thumbnails ©Nicholls2017

Draft 1

Bob then started to create the first draft in Photoshop by drawing, erasing and repositioning all the components until he was happy with the composition. The purpose of the first draft is to illustrate how all the required features fit into the scene. Detail and refinements to the anatomy can come later; at this stage Bob just wanted to know that we were happy with the concept… which we were!

X2 Draft 1 ©Nicholls2017

Draft 1 Key (below): A key with the first draft shows the positioning of the required features. This helps the client recognise the individual species of animals and makes sure all components requested are included. It also identifies additional elements that were not in the brief (e.g. 6. bones, in the dried riverbed). This composition includes three Aetosauroides carcasses (1), a Gracilisuchus (5), and lots of Marasuchus (2, 3 & 4).

X3 Draft 1 ©Nicholls2017

Draft 2

The first adjustment required to the draft drawing was rescaling. The Marasuchus and Gracilisuchus in the foreground needed to be enlarged, so Bob removed two Marasuchus from the extreme left, and then added a snail shell to help the viewer get a sense of scale.

X4 Draft 2 ©Nicholls2017

Draft 2 Key (below): This key  illustrates the size and dimensions of the archosaurs.  This was  valuable as it helped the DAWNDINOS team and the artist to understand how the animal subjects compared to each other in size and perspective as well as to check that they were drawn to scale correctly.

X5 Draft 2 ©Nicholls2017

Draft 3

Professor John Hutchinson (PI on the DAWNDINOS team) requested the addition of a desiccated head, which immediately transformed the composition because it added a realism to the perspective and added a focal point to the centre left.

It is hugely important for a paleoartist to understand the anatomy of his/her subject in order to accurately reconstruct an extinct animal. During the construction of this picture there was a constant dialogue between the artist and the scientists on the DAWNDINOS research team to ensure the most accurate images of the animal subjects were portrayed based on current research and knowledge.

X6 Draft 3 ©Nicholls2017

Draft 4

At this stage the DAWNDINOS team agreed they were happy with the format of the composition so Bob added in more detail to complete the final draft (sketch 4) below.  He added the characteristic armour to the three Aetosauroides carcasses and some similar pseudosuchian-like integument to the Gracilisuchus. The Marasuchus are dinosauromorphs so he illustrated their integument as a combination of skin with small scales and epidermal keratinous appendages (“protofeathers”), although their actual skin covering remains a mystery.

X7 Draft 3 ©Nicholls2017

Now all the detail of the composition was in place, so Bob could start to render the final artwork.

Final Artwork

The final digital painting of ‘Archosaurian Dawn’ was rendered in Photoshop, with additional photographic textures and ZBrush digital models.

The final artwork is shown ‘In Progress’  below– we can see that Bob has completed most of the picture, except for the Marasuchus. There are also colour and shadow adjustments still to do.

To create the plausibly coloured and convincingly complete extinct ecosystem, Bob Nicholls combined an extensive knowledge of extant and extinct animal colouration and behaviours– and the composition really did start to come to life!


The artist produced models of the animal subjects, including Marasuchus (below), which were added to the final composition. The Marasuchus were created in ZBrush, a digital sculpting program.  This method enabled him to rotate and manipulate the model however necessary to add the twenty or so different Marasuchus in the scene. Subsequently, there is no repetition in this illustration; each Marasuchus has been posed and added separately.


Despite the rigorous preliminary work and multiple draft drawings, occasionally it is necessary to tweak final artworks after they have been submitted to the client, so Bob titles them ‘Submission 1.’ On this occasion, DAWNDINOS did not ask for additional changes so ‘Archosaurian Dawn (Submission 1)’ was swiftly promoted to just ‘Archosaurian Dawn’.

Final Artwork Submission 1

‘Archosaurian Dawn’ is an impressive composition which uses a mix of scientific knowledge and artistry. DAWNDINOS are pleased to showcase it on the banner of  this website dawndinos.com!

Archosaurian Dawn (8bit)
‘Archosaurian Dawn’ by Robert Nicholls